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Sony VAIO SE: IPS for Under a Grand

When I saw the VAIO SE at the Sony booth at CES 2012, it was already a slightly older laptop and normally I wouldn’t have given it much time, but one thing clearly stood out from all of the other laptops I’ve reviewed in the past several years: the display. I’ve seen some really poor TN panels over the years, and I’ve also seen a few good TN panels, but it took all of two seconds to determine that yes, this laptop actually had something other than a TN display. The Sony rep confirmed that it uses an IPS display, and at that point I made it very clear that we really wanted to review this laptop. Even though it first launched back in September 2011, IPS displays are such a rarity that I had to try and get one for review. Thankfully, Sony fulfilled our wishes—sending along their VAIO Z2 as well as an added bonus. (Dustin already handled that review, if you missed it.)

On paper and at first glance, there’s a lot to like with the VAIO SE. Unlike most laptops in this size range, the LCD is actually a 15.5” panel (as opposed to the many 15.6” and the older 15.4” offerings). While some might want something slightly smaller like a 14” laptop, for 1080p displays this seems to be the sweet spot. Get any smaller and the prices start to skyrocket (e.g. the VAIO Z2), and for those of us with less than perfect eyesight it can also be a bit of a strain to read text on a 13.1” 1080p display. Besides a great display, the SE also includes plenty of memory, switchable graphics that will let you decide between (gaming) performance or longer battery life, and the main body of the laptop tips the scales at just 4.40 lbs. (2kg) and is slightly less than an inch thick (24.6mm). And if you need more battery life, Sony even offers a sheet battery that basically doubles the battery capacity (at the cost of thickness and weight). Let’s hit the spec sheet first, where we’ve bolded the items in our ~$1250 review sample as well as listing the alternative configuration for the basic $930 model.

Sony VAIO SE Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-2450M (dual-core 2.50-3.10GHz, 35W)
Intel Core i5-2540M (dual-core 2.60-3.30GHz, 35W)
Intel Core i7-2640M (dual-core 2.80-3.50GHz, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM67
Memory 4GB (1x4GB onboard + empty SO-DIMM slot)
6GB (1x4GB onboard + 1x2GB DDR3-1333)
8GB (1x4GB onboard + 1x4GB DDR-1333)
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6470M 512MB or
AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB DDR3
(480 cores, 485/1600MHz Core/RAM clocks)
Display 15.5" WLED Matte 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(Unknown: MS_0025)
Hard Drive(s) 500GB 7200RPM HDD
750GB 5400RPM HDD
(Toshiba Toshiba MK7559GSXP)

256GB RAID 0 SSDs (128GBx2)
512GB RAID 0 SSDs (256GBx2)
1024GB RAID 0 SSDs (512GBx2)
Optical Drive CD/DVD Burner
Blu-ray Combo Drive (Matshita UJ152)
Blu-ray Burner
Networking Gigabit Ethernet(Realtek RTL8168/8111)
802.11n WiFi (Intel WiFi+WiMax 6050)
Bluetooth 3.0 (BCM2070)
WiDi 2.0 Ready
Audio Stereo Speakers
Headphone jack
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI/SPDIF)
Battery 6-cell, 11.1V, ~4.4Ah, 49Wh
6-cell, 11.1V, ~4.4Ah, 49Wh Sheet Battery
(Optional)
Front Side WiFi On/Off Physical Switch
Left Side Optical Drive
Headphone Jack
Right Side Memory Card Readers
Gigabit Ethernet
VGA
HDMI 1.4a
1 x USB 3.0
2 x USB 2.0
Kensington Lock
AC Power Connection
Back Side Exhaust vent
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Windows 7 Professional 64-bit
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Dimensions 14.97" x 10.08" x 0.97" (WxDxH)
(380mm x 256mm x 24.6mm)
1.84” (46.7mm) high with sheet battery
Weight 4.40 lbs (2.0kg)
5.77 lbs (2.62kg) with sheet battery
Extras HD Webcam
103-Key backlit keyboard (1.7mm stroke)
Flash reader (SD, MS Pro Duo)
MS Office 2010 Starter or Home/Student
120W Power Adapter
Optional 49Wh Sheet Battery
Optional Dock
Warranty 1-standard warranty
2- and 3-year extended warranties available
Pricing Starting Price: $980
Reviewed Configuration: $1530

Our unit has the newish Core i7-2640M instead of the older i7-2620M, not that the extra 100MHz matters much. Graphics consist of Intel’s HD 3000 from the CPU, with an AMD HD 6630M available via a manual switch. “Stamina” selects the IGP and “Speed” selects the discrete GPU, and after a 5-10 second delay (and assuming you don’t have any programs running that prevent the switch), you can swap between the two. As far as performance goes, the HD 6630M is a decent entry level laptop GPU—don’t even bother with the HD 6470M/6490M for gaming, as they’re not powerful enough to handle anything more than low quality, low resolution gaming—but with a 1080p display we certainly would have liked to see the option for something a bit beefier.

The rest of the specs include all the typical stuff, along with a USB 3.0 port and Blu-ray combo drive ($80 extra for Blu-ray). Sony also shipped us the sheet battery (a $150 extra) and 8GB RAM ($85 extra). The weakest link in the specs is easy to spot: that Toshiba 750GB hard drive has plenty of capacity, but the 5400RPM spindle speed is going to put the dampers on some tasks and definitely doesn’t help with boot or shut down times.

Other than the hard drive, what’s not to love? You can get a decent quality IPS display in a mainstream laptop, with switchable graphics providing the ability to game or run for hours off the mains. If you stick with the base model, you can get almost everything you really need from a modern laptop for under $1000 (the VPS-SE290X we received currently starts at $979, though we’ve seen the price drop as low as $929). The main sticking point with the entry model is the downgraded HD 6470M GPU, which is only a minor upgrade from Intel’s HD 3000. It’s pretty easy to spec out a unit with less memory and storage but get a 7200RPM 500GB hard drive with the HD 6630M graphics for roughly the same price of $1020. (And if you don’t like to deal with bloatware, you can pay $50 extra for Windows 7 Professional and get the laptop with Sony’s Fresh Start—no Norton Antivirus, and possibly a few other missing “extras”.) All told it’s a pretty promising package, but let’s dig a little deeper and see if there are any concerns.

Dissecting the Sony VAIO SE
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  • piroroadkill - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    A perfectly serviceable specification and a great display, for a reasonable enough price.
    Everyone else needs to pay attention..
    Reply
  • bunnyfubbles - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    the screen, relative light weight (you'd be hard pressed to find any other 15+" lappy @ 5.4lbs let alone 4.4), and price really were what sold it for me

    I was going to go with the 13.3" S series for its portability, and while the 13.3" S series 1600x900 screen was definitely a cut above all other PC laptops that are stuck with 1366x768, the 1080p IPS of the SE really was that much more gorgeous when comparing them side by side in store.

    The HDD is a disappointment, however I just upgraded my desktop from a 128GB Crucial M4 to a pair of Samsung 830s, so I was able to plug that M4 into the laptop, as well as replace the 2GB module with a 4GB (was less than $20) for 8GB total. Those two simply hardware upgrades along with a reformat with only the essential software and drivers (all of which can be found pretty easily and conveniently from Sony's support site) lead to a very awesome overall computing experience.

    The last upgrade I did was grabbed an external USB DAC. The Speakers on this laptop are extremely anemic, and the onboard sound leaves much to be desired. I have a Creative X-Fi GO! (was less than $30) for when gaming and chatting (has both plugs for headset and mic, laptop itself has only one jack so you can't have both headset and mic, and thus would have to rely on the built in mic on the laptop which is passable but not ideal) and my trusty FiiO E7 when just watching movies or listening to music

    The 128GB SSD might not seem like much, but its certainly enough for the OS and apps, and no laptop will be able to satiate my gaming like my desktop, so very few games get installed to it anyway. Anything else (mostly large media files such as music and movies) can be handled via portable USB HDDs and flash thumbdrives, of which I converted the 640GB HDD to a portable drive with a portable 2.5" USB3.0 enclosure.
    Reply
  • jigglywiggly - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    I'd take the tn panel 95% ntsc color gamut (The clevo one you were talking about) I have one in my np8130 and it is absolutely amazing. Contrast and brightness is most important thing imo, then viewing angles. Reply
  • piroroadkill - Wednesday, April 04, 2012 - link

    I disagree. You're not going to be using a laptop for serious colour sensitive work, but you might have a laptop out to watch a video with a few friends sat around it. Reply
  • charleski - Wednesday, April 04, 2012 - link

    On TN panels the gamma changes (usually dramatically) with even a slight movement off-axis. They're completely unsuitable for colour-sensitive work unless you're going to lock your head at the optimum position.

    There certainly are people who need a decent portable screen for reviewing images, but the available options are very limited.
    Reply
  • Stacey Melissa - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    I'm not quite as worried about the hinge, but after three months with my base SE, I agree with the rest of the review, for the most part. I immediately swapped the HDD for a 128GB Crucial M4, and did a clean Win7 install, so performance is pretty good. I only get about 4 to 4.5 hours runtime, but I'm running the screen at fairly high brightness (82%) and turned off a couple obscure power-saving tricks. I'm very picky about noise. Luckily, fan noise is very low for my typical use, which involves browsing, Visual Studio, and video playback. I usually use a Targus wedge laptop cooler, which I don't plug in. Clicks are noisy. The trackpad is placed too far to the right, and I really miss two-finger scrolling. The keyboard is excellent, except for the spacebar, which often doesn't register left-side presses. It could use dedicated volume buttons. I like the manual graphics switching, except that it takes several seconds.

    Bugs: Scrolling usually quits working after waking from hibernation. To fix, open the mouse control panel, and click OK. The BT hardware sometimes quits working upon resume, even after the driver update that supposedly fixes it. When running on battery, the DVD drive switches on and off regularly and often, which causes the standard hardware attachment/detachment sound notification.

    The screen is easily the best I've used on a laptop. It also bests my old Dell 2405 desktop S-IPS in brightness, contrast, and of course sharpness, but not quite in gamut or accuracy.
    Reply
  • adece - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    ...is actually appealing! What do you know Reply
  • MrMaestro - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    I bet Dustin wouldn't have minded getting his hands on this laptop to review, how did AnandTech decide who had dibs? Coin toss? Rock-paper-scissors? Fight to the death? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    Dustin got the Z2, I got the SE... wasn't sure which would be better, but ultimately the Z2 is too costly for what you get and the keyboard doesn't appeal as much. Reply
  • slashbinslashbash - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    When I look at the MBP review, I see Windows laptops on some of the graphs and charts. Especially the ones about color gamut, etc. I would like to see a straight-up comparison. Put OSX *or* Windows on the MBP, MBA, etc. and include those numbers in the tests for battery life, display quality, heat, etc. I understand that some benchmarks only run on Windows, and even if they are available for OSX then it might not be fair to compare between the two because of the OS differences. I get it. So put Windows on an MBA or MBP using Boot Camp and include them in your comparisons. Some things, like h.264 playback battery life, might make sense to test under OSX and include as a direct comparison with Windows machines. Do that if you feel like it. If not, the same test with the MBP running Windows is good too.

    Every laptop that is reviewed on AT, I eventually end up comparing to the MBP. Please make this easier for me to do so I'm not switching back and forth all the time. There are plenty of people out there who use a MBP as a Windows-only machine. (I'm not one of them, but I do run Windows 7 in Parallels.) The MBP has a reputation as setting a standard. Please start including it as such. No need for a full article on it, just start including the numbers in your charts. Thanks.
    Reply

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